Friday, 15 July 2022
The M2 MacBook Air marks the second generation of Apple silicon Macs. But it still seems hard for us, collectively, to wrap our heads around the sea change these chips have enabled. When I reviewed one of the first M1 Macs — a 13-inch MacBook Pro — back in November 2020, I wrote:
Apple’s new Macs based on the M1 system on a chip, the first Macs
based on Apple silicon, are that sort of mind-bending better. To
acknowledge how good they are — and I am here to tell you they
are astonishingly good — you must acknowledge that certain
longstanding assumptions about how computers should be designed,
about what makes a better computer better, about what good
computers need, are wrong.
Some people will remain in denial about what Apple has
accomplished here for years. That’s how it goes.
I was right, but perhaps denial was the wrong word. Denial is often about refusing to believe something you don’t want to be true. With Apple silicon Macs, many people are hesitant to believe something they want to be true — that these computers are as good as they are. That they run very fast, very cool, and very efficiently. People suspect there has to be a catch.
There is no catch.
The 2020 M1 MacBook Air was (and remains) a great laptop. The new M2 MacBook Air is clearly better in every regard.
It’s thinner, lighter, faster, and has a better brighter display and better speakers. All while getting the same battery life and bringing MagSafe back, which effectively gives you an extra USB-C/Thunderbolt port while charging.
The keyboard and trackpad are great. They both look and feel identical — or nearly so — to the keyboard and trackpad on the 2021 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. With its flat, untapered top and bottom surfaces, the whole MacBook Air looks and feels like the thinner sibling to those new MacBook Pros.
With the case closed, holding it in hand, it is obviously thinner than the previous retina MacBook Airs. This has nothing to do with the previous MacBook Air models’ iconic wedge-shaped form, but instead is about the lack of subtle tapering on the new MacBook Air. That tapering had a slimming effect, but that effect was basically an optical trick. It made Intel MacBooks (and the first round of M1 MacBooks, which shared the same industrial designs) look thinner than they actually were or felt. This new design is more honest and feels great in hand. If there’s a downside to the new, untapered form factor, it’s that it makes these new MacBooks perhaps a bit harder to pick up from a table or desk using just one hand — without the tapering, it’s a bit harder to get one’s fingers underneath to lift it. But I say perhaps. It’s certainly not hard to pick up — and once in hand, it feels great.
The camera is fine for a built-in laptop camera.
There’s a notch. This looks weird at first, I know. But, as someone who’s been using a notched 14-inch MacBook Pro for months, trust me, you stop thinking about it after a few days. It’s a little bit weird when you use an app that has so many menus that one or more of them fall on the far side of the notch, but I don’t regularly use any apps with that many menus. I’ve got 26 apps running on this MacBook Air right now, and not one of them has too many menus to fit on the left of the notch.1
The display is bright and sharp. Unlike the new MacBook Pros, there’s no HDR and no ProMotion (dynamic high refresh up to 120 Hz). The 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro display have a resolution of 254 pixels per inch; the MacBook Air’s display has a resolution of only 224 pixels per inch. The practical effect of this pixels-per-inch difference is that the default display resolution of the MacBook Pros is exactly 2×; on the Air, the default resolution uses scaling. You can configure the MacBook Air to use a display resolution that doesn’t use scaling, but that makes less content fit on screen. These display differences are a significant reason why the new MacBook Pros start at $2,000 and the new MacBook Air starts at just $1,200. It’s the difference between a very good display and an excellent display.
The MacBook Pros have much better speakers too, but the speakers on the new MacBook Air are good.
Thermals are where people seem spooked. People are just so scarred from their experience with x86-based laptops (Apple’s or otherwise) over the last decade or so, as Intel lost the performance-per-watt plot, that they just can’t bring themselves to believe that a thin, high-performance, long-lasting, cool-running laptop with no fan (or, in Apple’s parlance, no “active cooling system”) is possible, let alone available at consumer-level prices. I’m here to reassure you: the new M2 MacBook Air is thin, high-performance, long-lasting, cool-running, and has no fan.
Compared to the M1 MacBook Air, the M2 Air is a better-looking lighter-weight device outside and a faster computer inside. Not like radically game-changingly faster than the M1, but nicely faster — pretty much exactly what you’d like to see a little over a year and a half after the M1. Apple says it’s more or less about 10–20 percent faster. Benchmarks I ran peg it as … about 10–20 percent faster. In the first two years of the Apple silicon era of Macs, the rest of the industry has not only failed to close the gap, they’ve fallen even further behind. The x86 Intel/AMD duopoly still has nothing that vaguely competes with the M1, and now Apple is shipping the M2 that’s even faster with the same or better energy efficiency.
There’s not much more to say about it.
Wait, there is one more thing. The hinge opens and closes very nicely. Apple’s MacBook hinge team does not get enough credit.
The aforementioned “sounds too good to be true” incredulity is, I think, why the 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro exists. It’s why the M1 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro sold well (second only to the MacBook Air) and why the new M2 version will continue to sell well. I expect it to remain the second-best selling Mac that Apple makes and yet, technically, it’s a machine almost no one should buy. But they do buy it, and like it, because they think they need it. It’s like people who think they want a big pickup truck or SUV yet never once use them for anything more than a smaller vehicle can handle. They just want it, because it feels like what they need, even though it isn’t in a practical sense.
Basically, there are millions of people whose computing needs would be more than met by the MacBook Air but who feel like they probably need a slightly thicker laptop with a fan on the inside and the word “Pro” stamped on the outside2 because their current ostensibly pro-level laptop — which may well be a MacBook Pro from Apple with Intel inside — struggles under the load of their daily work. It runs hot, the fans scream, and the battery doesn’t last long enough. Switching to this new thinner fan-less MacBook Air from a thicker MacBook Pro that makes frequent, clearly audible, use of its fan sounds like a downgrade. But for the overwhelming majority of Intel-based MacBook Pro users, it’s not. Switching to the new M2 MacBook Air would be the biggest upgrade in their computing lives.
I suspect this skepticism is exacerbated, even amongst somewhat technically-informed Mac users, by the fact that Apple tried to do this before with the 12-inch no-adjective MacBook and failed. A thin, lightweight design with no fans inside. That was the 12-inch MacBook — and the tradeoffs didn’t work out for a lot of people. It wasn’t noisy, because there was no fan, but because there was no fan it was slow. It started slow and throttled to run even slower to avoid getting hot. But the 12-inch MacBook wasn’t underpowered because a thin, fan-less, high-performance laptop was an impossible dream — it was underpowered because a thin, fan-less, high-performance laptop was and remains an impossible dream for the x86 computing architecture.
The Apple silicon architecture is a different ballgame. Trying to convince someone who’s never actually lived with an M1 (or, now, M2) Mac just how much better the Apple silicon platform is than x86 is like trying to convince a time traveller from the 18th century how great indoor plumbing is. Words alone do not suffice. You really need to let them take a shit indoors on a nice warm toilet in the middle of a cold winter night and see for themselves.
What is the ideal everyperson computer?
Apple has been on a decades-long quest pursuing the answer to that question.
The ideal everyperson computer is a laptop. That laptop has a full-sized keyboard and a beautiful 13-inch display. Maybe a 14-inch display with really small bezels. A smaller display is too small for most people’s taste (and possibly necessitates a slightly cramped keyboard); a larger display makes for too big and heavy a device for everyperson needs. The battery lasts all day despite active use and screen brightness being set to “plenty bright”. It has no fan because fan noise is abhorrent, but needs no fan because it’s equipped with chips that run more than fast enough without any active cooling system. The machine itself is physically durable and visually attractive. It has at least two high-speed modern I/O ports and a MagSafe port for charging. It doesn’t bother with legacy I/O ports, except, perhaps, a headphone jack, because that’s the only legacy port most people really will use. It only offers SSD storage. It runs just fine with the base amount of memory, but can be configured with up to two or three times more RAM, because more RAM is always better.3
This new M2 MacBook Air is that machine.
For the last decade-plus, the MacBook Air has been both the Mac that most people do buy, and the Mac that most people should buy. The M1 Pro/Max MacBook Pros introduced at the end of 2021 are the best MacBook Pros Apple has ever made, but with the M2 MacBook Air, it has never been more true that this is the Mac laptop the overwhelming majority of people should buy.
The main difference most people will notice between the M2 MacBook Air and the 14-inch MacBook Pro is how much thinner and lighter the MacBook Air is. The new MacBook Air is so thin that its entire height, sitting on a desk (thus, including the feet), is almost identical to the height of the bottom of the MacBook Pro. Like, if you just snapped off the entire display of the MacBook Pro, that’s how thin the MacBook Air is. Here’s the M2 MacBook Air next to my 2021 14-inch MacBook Pro:
The last difference most people will notice between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is that MacBook Pro has an active cooling system and the MacBook Air does not. They’ll never miss not having a fan in the Air and would never engage or notice the fan if they were instead using the Pro. If you doubt this, I beseech you, give indoor plumbing a chance.
I own a 2021 14-inch MacBook Pro. I’ve been using this 13-inch M2 MacBook Air all week, and because I started by cloning my personal machine using Migration Assistant,4 I’ve been confused at times which machine I was using at the moment. I find myself thinking, “Hey, I should be using the MacBook Air, I have a review to write” and then I look down and I am using the M2 MacBook Air. My review unit Air is starlight colored, with 1 TB storage and 16 GB RAM. My personal MacBook Pro is space gray, maxed out (no pun intended) with a 4 TB SSD and 64 GB RAM. In my daily use, this $1,900 MacBook Air feels identical to my $4,700 MacBook Pro.
What could be better on the Air?
In theory it could be even thinner and lighter. We’ll have to wait for future silicon for that to be possible without compromising performance or battery life. But such is the march of progress.
It’d be nice if the MacBook Air’s M2 chip could drive more than one external display. (The M1 Pro chip can drive up to three; the M1 Max up to four.) Instead of putting both Thunderbolt/USB-C ports on the left, it’d be nice if one of them were on the right.
As mentioned above, it’d be nice if the MacBook Air display’s physical resolution were higher, so that the default effective resolution wouldn’t require scaling.
There are several minor downsides particular to the entry model — the $1,200 configuration with 256 GB of storage. That base model has an 8-core GPU instead of 10-core, the result of chip binning. It costs $100 more to upgrade to a 10-core GPU. So far so good — for price-sensitive buyers, being able to trade 2 GPU cores for $100 seems fair. It feels like a cheapskate move, though, that the base model ships with the old 30-watt power adapter with a single USB-C port — all the other MacBook Air configurations include the new 35-watt power adapter with two USB-C ports, enabling you to charge two devices at once. Base model buyers can upgrade to this 35-watt charger for $20 (it costs $59 on its own), but a $1,200 MacBook Air should include that new charger by default. Apple even took time during the WWDC keynote to show this dual charger off. Lastly, there’s the kerfuffle over the fact that SSD read and write performance is slower with the 256 GB configuration, because it uses just a single NAND chip, whereas all other storage configurations use multiple NAND chips. It costs $200 to upgrade the base model to 512 GB storage. None of these are dealbreakers to me, just minor details to be aware of if you’re eying the $1,200 base model. It’s best, in my opinion, to consider the $1,500 configuration as the true base model (10 GPUs, full-speed SSD performance, and the new 35-watt charger), and to consider the $1,200 configuration something more like the “discount” configuration.
I still miss the illuminated Apple logo on older MacBooks — it’d be nice if Apple could figure out a way to bring that back.
Otherwise, I’m grasping for straws here looking for anything that could reasonably be significantly improved, to be honest. The M2 MacBook Air is that close to ideal for what it’s meant to be.5
After the M1 iMacs shipped a year ago in an array of fun vibrant colors, the biggest surprise last month when Apple introduced the new MacBook Air is that it didn’t come in any fun vibrant colors. As mentioned above, my review unit is starlight. Starlight, to my eyes, is nice, but it’s subtle. It’s definitely well-named — it should not be called gold or “some adjective gold”. It’s more like silver with a warmer color temperature. Noticeably different from actual silver, but also not too far from neutral. The new midnight color is the darkest MacBook Apple has ever made from aluminum. I haven’t seen one in person since WWDC, but it looked really nice. But part of why I, personally, liked it so much is that it appeared only subtly blue — more like very dark gray with a hint of blue than “dark blue”. The new MacBook Air color choices are all rather conservative.
Many people say they wish the new MacBook Air came in colors like those of the iMac, or iPhones and iPads. And, at WWDC, it was a very common question members of the media asked representatives from Apple: why not offer the Air in colors like the iMac? As ever with Apple, they did not really explain themselves. But reading between the lines and consulting my Cupertino-ology translation handbook, the gist I took away from their non-answer answers was that vibrant-colored laptops don’t actually look good in use. One might think they would, but they don’t. I’m not saying that’s true — I’m saying that’s what I think Apple product marketing folks were trying to say without actually saying it. (Apple product marketing reps only like to talk about what Apple has done, not would Apple could have done differently.) If you think about it, though, this makes some sense. Laptops are unique. Note, for one thing, that iPhones and iPads have displays that take up their entire front faces. You can have a bright red iPhone or a very blue iPad and while you’re using it, you don’t really see the red or blue (or purple or pink or green or whatever) casing. And even with the M1 iMacs, the vibrant aluminum is all on the back — the chins are much more neutral. Not so with a MacBook, where the unibody aluminum is fully exposed when the laptop is open. When you’re using a laptop, you want the visual emphasis entirely on the display. Vibrant aluminum colors don’t distract from an all-display iPhone or iPad while in use; they might with a laptop. Again, I’m not saying I know that’s true, because I’ve never used a (say) Product Red MacBook — I’m just saying that seems to be what Apple folks were telling us, in so many words, and it does seem plausible.
That said, it’s worth considering that the teardrop MacBook Air form factor was with us for 14 years. This all-new MacBook Air design might be with us for a similarly long stretch. One way Apple can keep this basic design fresh year after year is by introducing new colorways. That’s what Apple does with the iPhone and iPad — form factors change only rarely, but color options change every year. I expect we’ll see MacBook Air colorways that are more fun eventually.
The biggest (and smallest) room for improvement with the new MacBook Air would be options for larger and smaller displays. If you want a large-screen MacBook — 15 or 16 inches — your only option is the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $2,500. That’s downright absurd given that the M2 MacBook Air has the performance and features necessary to serve as the primary Mac for the overwhelming majority of even serious Mac users. The 16-inch MacBook Pro costs $500 more than the correspondingly-specced 14-inch MacBook Pro. There should be a 15-inch MacBook Air that costs $400 or $500 more than the correspondingly-specced 13-inch Air.
Apple has never made such a big-screen non-Pro MacBook, but they should. But Apple has made smaller laptops before, and they should again. From 2010 through 2017, Apple made an 11-inch MacBook Air. It was one of my favorite Macs ever made. From 2015 through 2019, Apple made the 12-inch retina MacBook, which was particularly notable at the time because the MacBook Air didn’t yet have a retina display. Thin and light though the new M2 MacBook Air is, at 13 inches, it is noticeably heavier than either of those discontinued models:6
Wishing that Apple made 11- and 15-inch models is a fair criticism of the company, but it’s not a fair criticism of this device, of course. And if there’s only going to be one size, this, clearly, is it. I am convinced that many people would prefer a larger or smaller MacBook Air, but I am even more convinced that most people are best served by this mid-range size. Some people do like their porridge cool or piping hot, but 13 inches is the Goldilocks “just right” size.
The M2 13-inch MacBook Air should not be thought of as version 2 of an Apple silicon MacBook Air. It’s more like version — I don’t know — 40 of what Apple thinks a standard Mac laptop should be. Apple silicon is what’s been missing — no-compromise chips that enable Apple to make the laptops they’ve always wanted to make. It’s taken decades of iterative refinement to get to this point: a nearly perfect laptop for nearly everyone.